On moral neutrality

As teachers, we are told not to push our politics on students, and not to use our classrooms to further our own agendas. Be neutral. We are told to be role models, to stay positive. Don’t focus on the negative.

We are told: Spread love, but don’t talk too much about hate. Embrace diversity, but don’t talk too much about racism. Be resilient, but don’t talk too much about trauma. 

In reading Dr. Judith Herman’s classic text, Trauma and Recovery, I reflected on the parallels between therapists and teachers in taking a neutral stance. Dr. Herman writes:

 “‘Neutral’ means that the therapist does not take sides in the patient’s inner conflicts or try to direct the patient’s life decisions. Constantly reminding herself that the patient is in charge of her own life, the therapist refrains from advancing a personal agenda.”

I’m sure this approach resonates with many teachers: we want to provide students all of the relevant information and skills to think critically, and not simply impose our own opinions. We support students’ autonomy and power when we remain “neutral” in this sense.

But there are areas where we cannot, and should not, be neutral. Herman continues:

“The technical neutrality of the therapist is not the same as moral neutrality. Working with victimized people requires a committed moral stance. The therapist is called upon to bear witness to a crime. She must affirm a position of solidarity with the victim.”

For which crimes do your students call you to bear witness, through their words or their actions?

Do you bear witness to the crimes of racism, homophobia, transphobia, religious discrimination? Do you bear witness to the injust systems that create generational poverty? Do you bear witness to the pain of sexual and gender-based violence, to child abuse?

Do you bear witness to the crimes committed through inequity in your own school, in your own classroom? By your colleagues? By yourself?

When you bear witness, do you affirm your solidarity? Clearly, unequivocally, firmly positioning yourself alongside your students, together with them in their pain, always in their corner?

Or do you remain “morally neutral?” Do you say, “there are two sides to every story?” Do you ask, “well, what did you do to bring this on yourself?” Do you wonder, “did that really happen?”

Herman further explains:

“This does not mean a simplistic notion that the victim can do no wrong; rather, it involves an understanding of the fundamental injustice of the traumatic experience and the need for a resolution that restores some sense of justice.This affirmation expresses itself in the therapists’ daily practice, in her language, and above all in her moral commitment to truth-telling without evasion or disguise.”

Educators cannot say we are trauma-informed and also remain silent on the injust systems and conditions that cause trauma. We need to be truth-tellers, “without evasion or disguise,” when it comes to addressing injustice.

Teaching is political. As Shana White puts it, “Our words, curriculum decisions, who we advocate for and why, disciplining, opportunities we provide, and our pedagogy [are political]. Working with and facilitating learning for other human beings will always be political.” Jose Vilson says, “we are agents of the state, so in fact, we are political even if we’re not partisan.”

Whether we like it or not, teachers are the face of institutions, and with that institutional position comes great power. We can use our power to position ourselves in solidarity with our students, or we can hide our fear and indifference behind a mask of “neutrality.” In remaining morally neutral, we abandon our students at the time they most need us, and we ensure that trauma will continue to perpetuate through generations.

But if we choose to bear witness, to act in solidarity, we empower ourselves and our students. We say, “It is so wrong that this happened to you.” We say, “I believe you.” We say, “I’m here for you, and I will fight for you.” And we go beyond saying these things and put our power into action: teaching the truth about injustices in history and in our time, challenging unjust policies, advocating against unjust laws, working to dismantle the systems that harm our students and our community. We can take the first step toward creating a more just world.

So: what will you choose?

Summer learning opportunities

Here are a few opportunities to learn with me this summer:

Graduate course in Vermont: Taking Care

I am co-teaching this course with a colleague who is an art therapist, and we’re focusing on wellness. It’s not just bubble baths and deep breaths; wellness is a commitment to caring for our full selves. This graduate course will explore both the theory and practice of wellness for educators. We’ll look at how you can maintain your own wellness, especially when facing challenges at work, but also how you can foster wellness in your students within your academic content area. We’ll have a two-day retreat-style face-to-face meeting in Winooski, VT in July, then online weeks, and a final wrap up day in August.

More information and registration here.

Mini-Course on pedagogy, vicarious trauma webinar, plus a book study

I’m facilitating these three online opportunities this summer:

Trauma-Conscious pedagogy and reflective practice mini-course 

Preventing and addressing vicarious trauma: webinar

Online book study: The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog

These pieces were formerly part of the Trauma-Conscious Teaching microcredential through Antioch. This the last time they’ll be offered through Antioch, as we’re phasing out the microcredential this fall. If you’re interested in taking any of these pieces but can’t join this summer, be in touch- they may be scheduled again later on as one-time workshops.

Late summer and fall professional development and consulting

I’m booking from August onward for professional development and consulting. See my services page and be in touch!

When our students identify with the shooter

“When school shootings happen, why don’t we talk about it?”

This is a question posed by a student group working with Tom Rademacher. It stopped me in my tracks when I read it, in a photo posted by Tom of whiteboard notes from a student activist planning session.

The question, to me, is the whole ballgame of education. When our students want and need to talk about what’s important to them, do we show up? Do we create space? Do we set aside our lesson and just listen? Do we sit in the discomfort, because we serve our students, or do we avoid hard conversations in our own self-interest?

In the last few months, I’ve been thinking a lot about how our own fears as educators (and people) can drown out our ability to hear what our students are really saying.

In the aftermath of yet another school shooting, we expect that our students are going to be scared. We, as the adults, are also scared. Will I die today in this place? It’s a horrifying question to consider, yet we see images of the victims and can’t help but feel connected. I teach English, too. I would stand in front of my students, too. Our students see themselves: I would send that text. I would speak out if I survived. I would be terrified.

Yet, what do we do when our students see themselves reflected not in the victims, but in the shooters?

In my time teaching at a therapeutic school, many of my students were more likely to be categorized as bullies, not targets. Their “challenging behavior” was often what landed them at our school- or, their original school’s response to that behavior. Many of these students lacked coping skills and healthy boundaries. They struggled to form and sustain reciprocal relationships. Faced with trauma, poverty, mental health challenges, and a whole range of adverse experiences, these students were often in survival mode. Doing the best they could.

Survival mode isn’t inspirational. My students were often unkind. They made awful choices. They lied and lashed out and broke stuff. I cared deeply about every single one of them, even though it felt impossible sometimes. That was my job. I saw the magic in every one of them. Even when they were jerks.

I cared deeply about every one of them. And that care made it possible for me to hear them say “I am going to bring a gun to school” and really listen to what they meant.

As I write this, I feel the tension and I hear objections echoing. “We have to take all threats seriously.” Yes, I agree. “We can’t make excuses for these perpetrators’ behavior.” I agree.

And. Some of our students will read the news and identify with the shooter. They feel lonely and isolated. They feel powerless. They don’t have the skills to cope with the overwhelming feelings. They wonder, “If I did the worst possible thing in the world, would anyone still love me? Does anyone really care that much about me?”

So when a student who I care about says, “I want to bring a gun to school,” how should I respond?

“You can’t say that.”

“Don’t joke about that.”

“I need to call the administrator.”

“I need to call the police.”

Or should I say, “That sounds like a really intense feeling. Tell me more?” Should I say, “I really care about you and it makes my heart hurt to know that you are that angry. Let’s talk about it?” What would it look like to set aside my own fear and let myself empathize with a student who is empathizing with what I perceive as evil?

What would it look like to recognize the complexity of trauma and how victims so often become perpetrators? What would it look like to learn into that messiness and choose empathy instead of fear?

I wish I knew how to identify when a student is reaching out for help or when they have crossed over the point of no return. I wish I knew what the line was – when a student is speaking their truth and seeking connection, and when a student is sharing a murderous plan. I wish I knew how to prevent these atrocities. And I am not making a case against sharing information, reporting, or intervening.

But I’m wondering. When we talk about school shootings, can we be brave enough to recognize that some of our students identify with the shooter? And can we hold them in our care, our empathy, and our curiosity? Can we pull them closer into our community and say, “No matter what awful thing has crossed your mind, you still belong here”?

I don’t know the answers. But I am committed to wrestling with them until we find a better path forward. I am holding all of the victims, past and future, in my heart, and all of my magical, struggling students, too.

 

 

 

Learn with me this spring

The students who fall through the cracks and get pushed out of their communities need us to change how we approach our work with them.  This change can happen when we take the time and space to self-reflect.

I believe that self-reflection is one of the most important things teachers can do to improve their support of all students, the challenging ones especially. We need to identify our hidden beliefs and emotions to understand why some students feel more frustrating than others. We need to find ways to transform our experiences into meaning and align our philosophies with our practice.

This spring, I’m teaching a graduate course through the Castleton Center for Schools to help teachers take the time for this self-reflection, focusing on trauma-informed and strengths-based approaches to working with challenging students. The course meets face-to-face twice in Winooski, Vermont, to allow us to build community and dive into thoughtful conversations about our practice and our beliefs. In between those two meetings, we’ll read, reflect and discuss online, applying new learning directly to our current classroom environments.

At the end of the course, you can expect to walk away with concrete strategies, problem-solving approaches, and many resources to explore. I also hope you’ll walk away with more questions than answers, and a willingness to carry that inquiry into your work.

Please join me to create a learning community that will help you build your skill set to support challenging students.

Register at the Castleton Center for Schools site. 

The Stories I’ll Never Tell

In a little less than two weeks, I’ll walk out of my school for the last time. After eight years, I’m moving on from the therapeutic school where I’ve worked as a teacher and leader. I’m happy with my decision and excited about the projects and adventures ahead of me – but I’m also deeply sad to leave the community that’s been my home for the better part of a decade.

It’s a funny thing to try to write about my experiences from this school. Because it’s a therapeutic school that provides counseling as well as education, we’re covered not only by educational privacy law and ethics, but also by health care law and ethics. Even if I weren’t bound by law, I’d still want to respect that the depth of counseling we do requires the trust of a confidential space. So while I can and do write a lot about the strategies, tools and stances of our teachers, I write very little about specific students. When I do, it’s only in the broadest of terms. But the true depth of my work has been in getting to know these complicated, amazing humans and maintaining solid connections through all the ups and downs. This means that the most impactful work I’ve experienced is work I can’t really write about, at least not in a meaningful way. Without the context and specifics of each student, the stories are just sketches. 

There are so many stories I’ll never tell: stories about children who have experienced more than most adults do in a lifetime, stories about teens who have everything in the world working against them. The deck is stacked against them when we meet and then something comes along and shreds every last one of the cards and throws it in their faces. The stories of these teens are always about resilience. They are about the depth of human suffering and the unimaginable strength it takes to change. They are stories about sharing the lowest moments and the most fantastic victories.

My stories are about building deep relationship with kids who really had no reason to trust me at all, and stories about how hard we both worked to build and sustain that relationship. There are a lot of tears in my stories. There’s a lot of swearing. There’s a lot of late nights not sleeping and wondering if my students hated me, if I could serve my students, if my students were going to be okay, if my students were at home sleeping or if they were missing or if they were alive.

Mostly the stories I’ll never tell are about hope. They’re about how sparkly and wonderful and brilliant and driven every single one of my students has been – even (especially) the ones who came to our school after another adult at another school said some version of “this kid can’t/won’t/doesn’t want to learn.” The stories are filled with parents who do the impossible every day for their kids even when they’re barely hanging on themselves.And my stories are filled with the giant beating hearts of teachers who dig deep within their souls and find the bravery to be the people our students need.

I won’t ever tell the full stories, the real stories about the past eight years. But I’ll keep writing about what I can in the way I can, and finding ways to talk about the themes and the lessons and the common experiences that transcend the specific and confidential details. And I am so comforted to know that long after I step away from that community, these beautiful stories will continue to unfold: in shouts across the parking lot basketball court; in songs sung along to the radio in cars on the way to internships; in whispers sitting on the floor in the hallway; between tears on the hardest day; between full-belly laughs on the best days.

In my next steps professionally, I’m going to be focusing on helping other teachers work through the challenges with challenging students. I’m doing this because I know that when you persist through the layers of frustration, when you can make it past all the roadblocks and the assumptions and the baggage, you can get to the other side and see into the shining heart of a kid, and see your own humanity reflected back to you. I want every teacher to carry around that story they can never fully explain, because the experience is too complicated for words. It can only be told to ourselves, over and over as we reflect back on what it means to work with complex and whole people. It can only be felt in the bones of a teacher.

So I have stories I’ll never tell – and I hope you do too.

On going to heaven

A few times a year, I’ll find myself in a conversation with someone who doesn’t already know what I do for work, often a stranger or an acquaintance, and I’ll explain about my school, my student population, and my role. I’ll give a couple of examples of the challenges facing my students and the structures we use to serve them well.

Every so often, the response will be: ” “you’re an angel,” or “you’re going to heaven,” or “amazing! I could never do that.”

I don’t fault people’s intent behind these comments. I understand and appreciate the compliment, but (even putting aside the religious undertones) there’s something about these comments that rubs me the wrong way. The implication (and sometimes plainly stated message) is that “I could never do that.” There’s a sense that to work with challenging or high-needs students, there must be something holy about you. You need to operate at a higher level, be driven by a spiritual mission, or expect an otherworldly reward. There’s a connotation of sacrifice and goodness, of purity. Sometimes when I hear these “compliments,” what I really hear is, “thank goodness you’re doing that work so the rest of us don’t have to.”

In reality, working with challenging students, working with high-needs students, working with all students is a job for everyone. It doesn’t require holiness. It doesn’t require spiritual belief. It requires hard work, perspective, and empathy. It isn’t angelic; it’s messy, full of mistakes, and profoundly human.

We need boundaries, not martyrdom. We need a support system, not a pedestal. We don’t need to hear “I could never do that,” we need to hear “I want to do better for my students too, how can we work together?”

If you feel driven by spirituality and mission, that’s wonderful – many people draw on their beliefs to feel connected to their work. However, projecting these values on others may have the opposite effect of your intent. If you make an assumption about me – that I hold certain beliefs about God, heaven, and spiritual mission, or find meaning in a compliment related to those beliefs – it makes me wonder what beliefs you’re projecting onto my students.

If we’re not meeting in a context related to our shared spirituality, I’d prefer a compliment about my perseverance, creativity, or resourcefulness. I’d prefer you asking questions to better understand my experience. Instead of telling me, “I could never do that,” let’s talk about how you actually could – and help you get there.

Students with behavioral challenges, disabilities, high needs – whatever the label, they’re all children. They’re people. I’m not an angel – I’m a human, working with humans. Let’s see each other as people, as equals working together toward a common goal. Let’s talk about heaven another day – today, I’m doing the work here on earth.

Rethinking holidays in schools

Schools are social institutions, agents not just of academic education but of socialization and transmission of cultural norms. We must be intentional, critical and reflective when we make choices about how we carry this responsibility. Holidays are just piece of a broader puzzle about inclusion, cultural responsiveness, and equity, but I’ll use this time of year as a good opening for conversation.

Every school should approach holidays and celebrations differently based on the particular community it serves. Here I’ve generated some questions that might serve as a starting place for conversations within your setting about looking at holidays with a critical eye and making some intentional decisions about how to move forward. Honest, vulnerable conversations are the first step to increasing equity, inclusion and a sense of belonging for all.

Questions to ask ourselves, in no particular order:

  • Which religions’ holidays are acknowledged at my school? What are the ways they are acknowledged?
    • Are these acknowledgements intentional, or are they just “what we have always done?”
  • Which holidays are celebrated by the school as an institution? Are we spending money and/or time as a school on some holidays? Which ones? Who chooses? Why?
    • When thinking about money and time, consider: decorations, special foods, parties/dances/celebrations, special class materials, etc
  • Are students, staff and faculty supported to observe holidays in ways that are meaningful to them?
    • Example: what do we do as a school to accommodate people who are fasting for a religious observance?
  • Which religious and/or national holidays merit a school closing? Why? Who makes those decisions?
  • Who makes decisions about which religious and/or national holidays are acknowledged/celebrated? Do we have a “default” set of holidays that we all assume we will celebrate?
  • How often are we disrupting our school’s routine in order to celebrate or acknowledge holidays? Why? Is the disruption in routine worth the benefit? Is there a benefit?
    • Example: do we have holiday parties, assemblies, or special schedules? Are classes doing activities unconnected to their learning goals around holidays?
  • Which holidays, celebrations and other times are important to our students, our families, our staff and our community? Have we asked this recently?
  • How do we balance honoring and celebrating students/families/teachers and their cultural and religious values with a commitment to inclusion for all and not preferencing one culture over another?
  • How are teachers incorporating holidays into classes? Are teachers incorporating this in an educational and culturally responsive way, or do they perpetuate a preference for the dominant culture’s holidays?
    • Example: math word problems themed around how many Christmas presents Timmy can buy with X amount of money, vs. an educational piece around how Christmas is celebrated in different cultures and what that means in reference to our learning goals
  • Is our school participating in tokenism and/or perpetuating surface-level or incorrect understanding of holidays?
    • Example: if our school acknowledges Hanukah but not Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kippur, we likely do not have a good understanding of the significance or meaning of different Jewish holy days.
    • Example: are we asking students from non-dominant cultures to take on the responsibility of educating their classmates, while assuming that students from dominant cultures don’t need to educate or explain things to others? Why?
    • Also consider whether holidays themselves promote damaging narratives, such as Columbus Day.
  • Do we acknowledge the increase mental  health and wellness challenges that occur around Christmas/winter holiday time? What are we doing to support students, families, teachers and community members who may experience increased challenges during the winter?
  • Have we examined seemingly non-religious holidays such as Halloween and Valentine’s Day from different lenses? Have we examined whether those days actually do carry religious and cultural meaning? Have we questioned whether there is value in acknowledging/celebrating them, or do acknowledge/celebrate them unquestioningly?
  • How are we talking about holidays, especially Christmas? Are we using language that includes or excludes – and I’m not talking about saying “Happy holidays” instead of Merry Christmas.” Are we using conversation prompts like “What was the best thing you ate for Thanksgiving?” or “What was your favorite Christmas/Hanukah present?” or even “Did you have a great break?” that make assumptions, or are we using neutral questions that allow students space to share any experience?
  • Do we have our own rituals, routines and celebrations as a school? How do we support students to build community with one another in ways that are not connected to religious or national routines, rituals and celebrations?

 

I would love to see some additional questions to add to this list – add them in the comments! I would also love to hear if anyone thinks through any of these questions, on your own or at your school – let me know in the comments or link to your own post!

Parents are Students Are Parents Are Students…

It’s been really disheartening to me lately, especially in my role doing online engagement work with Edutopia, to see educators type things along the lines of “I really care about each and every one of my students. Those parents, though…” Another common one is “I can only do so much but those parents need to…those parents should…those parents shouldn’t.” It’s disheartening because I strongly believe that when we make a commitment to support our students as “whole children,” we commit to supporting students in their family and home context. This means pulling family members closer to us instead of writing them off, engaging caregivers even when they frustrate us, and doing everything we can to see past old excuses and blame-based commentary. Saying we support “the whole child” but giving up on parents we perceive as “not involved” is giving up on the child themself.

Our students’ parents are the same humans as our students. Sometimes this is literal: our students grow up and have children and we educate those children, or our students have children while they are with us and we educate those children. Sometimes, this is figurative: our students are human members of our community, and their parents and family members are human members of our community. If our goals in education center democracy and citizenship, we must model a respect and inclusion of all community members. This means seeking understanding and building connections. It means talking about the parents of our students as if they were in the room with us. It means checking our assumptions, examining our biases, and seeking to educate ourselves on cultural differences so we can build stronger relationships. Being in community with humans- our students and their caregivers and families – means actively advocating for change and dismantling the systems that oppress the humans in our communities.

This isn’t easy work. But to quote the Talmud: You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.

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When I’m interacting with a student’s family and I feel defensive, annoyed, frustrated, angry, or scared, that’s a clue to me that I need to take some time to check my own emotions and get some perspective, often through checking in with trusted colleagues. I need to re-center the student and re-commit to unconditional positive regard for the entire family. I must evaluate whether I’m playing into a negative script or whether I’m writing new one, collaboratively with the people with whom I’m trying to connect.

I wrote some practical tips and conversation-starters for a community post on Edutopia: click here to read more. Bottom line? Empathy is everything, and it’s essential especially when it’s not easy.  Our students are the community is our students are their parents are our community and on and on. Let’s do our best to empathetically engage with them all.

Edcamp USA

Several weeks ago I had the privilege of attending Edcamp USA at the US Department of Education. Here’s a quick overview of the day (including some comments from yours truly):

A few people asked me afterward: “What did you learn?” In reflecting on the day, I think I learned very little in terms of new content: I didn’t walk away with a new app I’m dying to use, an innovative approach I hadn’t considered before, or a strategy I tested out in class that Monday.

Instead, I made connections. I took a walk with an educator from Florida and connected over giving students voice within and beyond the classroom. I sat with a circle of Edcamp organizers and connected over the challenges and joys of bringing teacher-driven professional development to our communities. I listened to Department of Education staffers who encouraged us to reach out to them with ideas and solutions to best serve all our kids. I brainstormed with a teacher around how to best support his students to create lasting community impact in a class connecting service learning and social studies.

All of these connections interlaced and overlapped, and I felt buoyed by the connected energy of a couple hundred educators who traveled from across the country for one reason: we want to support our students.

While Edcamp in a fancy location was awesome, the day also reminded me that Edcamp anywhere is Edcamp everywhere, and what Edcamp is about is relationships and connections. Relationships and connections: what better to be at the heart of a movement of educators?

3 Reasons to Check Out EdCamp Centerpoint

EdCampCPS Logo

  1. Make a connection. Instead of “sit and get” professional development, EdCamp requires that you move around, actively participate, and talk to new people. I went to a tech conference in the area last spring and went almost the entire day without having more than a small-talk conversation with anyone – and I’m a pretty social person. It’s pretty impossible to get away with that at an EdCamp – I promise. We’re expecting participants with a wide range of backgrounds and experiences, so take advantage of the cross-pollination and make a connection with someone new.
  2. Centerpoint isn’t like any other school you’ve seen before. Take a tour through our building, where rooms have names instead of numbers, students cook lunch for the school every day, and staff are encouraged to turn student-centered ideas into action (for example: this week we’re launching a therapeutic in-car driver’s ed program – I think it’s the first program of its kind). We do everything we do for the benefit of our students, and you can see that when you walk in the door. Come be part of our community for a day.
  3. Nurture yourself. Why come to an EdCamp during a school vacation? I think you’ll find it to be a way to “fill your tank,” rather than increase your burnout. We’ll have a ton of food and coffee to get your brain ready for learning (thanks to Physician’s Computer Company, Cabot Cheese, City Market, Healthy Living, and more of our amazing sponsors). The content of EdCamp is whatever participants bring to the table – so talk about the issues about which you are passionate, with other passionate education stakeholders from across Vermont. Put some energy and enthusiasm in your bank, and start fresh after the break with new ideas about how to support learning for all learners.

 

I really hope you’ll consider joining us at EdCamp Centerpoint on April 23. Preregister so we can be ready to host you, and tell your friends, too! Click: https://www.smore.com/7kru-edcamp-centerpoint